When looking for jobs in Japan, first it is important to understand the job-hunting process and the entire culture that surrounds it. Finding your first job is always a challenge, but the job-hunting culture in Japan is very unique, as far as I am aware there are not many countries that have a similarly standardized approach to the idea of finding employment. In Japan, this process is called “Shukatsu” (from jap. 就職活動, shuushoku katsudou, roughly translates to job-hunting or job-searching) and is still the means by which a majority of Japanese find their first employment. I should point out, that this is something that mainly University students engage in. For non-Japanese, it is therefore often not very relevant, but still, an important aspect of the job market, that you should be familiar with if you want to work in Japan.
A uniform process
Shukatsu has been around as a means to find jobs in Japan for a long time. It is one among many leftovers of the “old” Japanese business culture, that made Japan famous in the 70s of the last century. Many people attributed the success of Japanese businesses at that time to this culture. It is firmly based on the idea of lifetime employment, something that used to be very common in Japan, where people would enter a company after graduating from university, and then stay with that company until retirement. While this is changing, with younger generations being more open to the idea of changing jobs or even careers at a later point in life, the job-hunting process for newly graduated students has stayed roughly the same.
So what is Shukatsu exactly? In Japan, the idea that you can only find a decent job if you have a bachelor’s degree is pretty common. In fact, for non-Japanese, this is even more true, with many common working-visa being only available to those that have graduated University. If you look at job-searching websites, you will find that almost every job that’s listed requires you to have a bachelor’s degree. Accordingly, a very high proportion of Japanese high-school graduates will go on to enter a university to continue their education (over 70%, according to this data I found from 2018). The third year of university is usually when most are going to start Shukatsu. Rather than sticking out, uniformity is what’s important here. Students will all don the same non-descript black suits, Humphrey Bogart-style trench coats, start attending job seminars, company briefings (so-called 説明会, setsumeikai), group discussions, and other mandatory events in the hopes of securing an invitation to a job interview.
Finding jobs in Japan – not an easy task
It does not stop there, however. For those that secure an invitation to a job interview, there are many more hurdles to climb. First, they might have to take what’s called an SPI test (or Web Aptitude test, there are different names around), a sort of test that supposedly assesses your personality, character, and general knowledge. Via these standardized tests, companies presume that they can weed out those candidates that do not fit into their hiring profile. If you pass, you have usually at least three job interviews to attend, starting with an HR member in the first interview and by the last, you will often end up sitting down with the company president. And all of that is just for one company, on average, a Japanese student will apply to 14 (!!!) companies during his/her Shukatsu (Japanese data here from 2014, by now that number is most likely higher). And even if they manage to pass the gauntlet and get hired, starting salaries are usually very low and hours are long. Salaries will then slowly start rising as the years go by. In the olden days, this system might have made sense when the expectation was that any potential new hire would be working for a company for close to 40 years. Now though, there is a growing trend towards younger people quitting their jobs and changing careers, so this overly thorough approach to hiring appears to be highly outdated. In some industries, almost half of new hires quit within the first three years (data on this in English was very hard to find, here’s an article from 2013 though).
All of this while also attending university
Balancing studies and job-hunting can be pretty challenging, so most do not bother. Japanese university is usually pretty laid back (some call their time in university the “summer vacation of life), only getting in is difficult, graduating is often considered a given so many students do not actually study much in the first place. Club activities and earning money by doing part-time work are oftentimes more important than actually studying. But during the third year, everything else is put to the side and Shukatsu takes full precedent. Students will regularly skip classes in order to attend the aforementioned gauntlet of seminars and interviews. Many prestigious universities take high tuition fees from their students, with the students hoping to better their chances on the job market. Every university has a counseling office that is tasked with preparing their students for Shukatsu, by organizing events and holding 1-on-1 counseling sessions among other things. Some universities will even have agreements with some companies, where the company promises to hire a certain number of students every year. This leads to students and their families having certain expectations, which the university will then be pressed to fulfill. Since university is often just considered a stepping stone for a later career, nothing could be more damaging for a university’s reputation than their students being unable to find employment. While hardly a problem that is exclusive to Japan, universities being run as a business, rather than an educational institution is certainly something that might warrant it’s own article in the future.
But what about foreigners?
There certainly are foreigners that find jobs in Japan by doing Shukatsu. Most of them are exchange students or full-time students at a Japanese university. But generally, this is not the norm and I would even go so far as to advise against it. The first problem is language. As you can imagine, going through this grueling process can be difficult enough if Japanese is your native tongue, but doing it as a non-native speaker can prove next to impossible. There is also another problem. By following the process of Shukatsu to find jobs in Japan, you end up setting yourself up to compete directly with Japanese for open positions, which is often a losing battle from the start. You have to act like a Japanese but will in turn never be treated as such. If the deck is stacked against you from the start, my advice would be to avoid playing in the first place. There are many other ways by which you can find employment in Japan, following an outdated, almost arcane ritual like Shukatsu is probably not going to be your best bet.
My intention with this article was not to explain Shukatsu in detail (since I don’t think it’s something you should be actively pursuing anyway). Rather, I hope to have provided you with some background information on the whole culture and stigma surrounding it. If by the end of this article you still feel like doing Shukatsu, feel free to consult one of the many guides on how to give the perfectly standard answer to standard job-interview questions, and on how many inches you should bow when entering and leaving the room.
If you are interested in reading other articles about finding jobs in Japan, here is a selection to get you started. Also feel free to contact me with any questions you might have.